Bharti Airtel has become the first major DTH or cable company to free up its content app, Airtel XStream, from its hardware.
All other major cable and DTH companies in India offer their app only on their own device — typically a stick or a set-top-box — and do not allow the software to be installed directly on smart TVs or Android TV boxes like Mi Box.
However, Airtel — which runs one of India’s biggest DTH networks — has taken a different approach by unbundling the service from its own hardware.
Any one with any Android TV device can now install the XStream app on their TV or Android box and consume movies and other content directly on the TV. The XStream app is now available on Android TV’s Play Store.
In contrast, Airtel Digital competitors like Dish TV, D2h Tata Sky, Hathway and Den Networks do not allow their content apps to be installed on or run on Android TV devices that are not purchased from them.
For example, Tata Sky’s Android app (Binge) and Dish TV’s Android app run only on set-top-boxes and smart sticks provided by these service providers, and not on the Mi TV Box or Mi TV.
This means that the millions of users in India who have purchased Android smart TVs and Android TV boxes are not able to take advantage of the content offered by these platforms on their app platforms.
This is not entirely by accident, as these players see such devices as competition to their traditional services, and do not see them as viable, profitable businesses that can compensate for their losses in the traditional business.
However, they do realize that competition from these Internet technology-based content distributors — like Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Shemaroo and Netflix — has started eating into their customer base. Unlike their traditional service — which requires their own physical network to run — these software-based services that run on any underlying physical network such as a broadband connection.
To prevent their users from abandoning them as they move to such software-based platforms, traditional cable and DTH companies have added Internet-technology distribution capabilities to their existing networks and devices by bringing out app-enabled set-top-boxes and smart sticks.
Still, the focus is to ensure that their customer does not completely abandon lucrative, traditional content delivery services — such as DTH and cable — while taking advantage of Internet-based content (apps or OTT).
Airtel’s strategy is based on a slightly different reading of the market.
It sees Internet-based distribution as a viable and independent business, and not just as an ‘add-on’ or ‘supplementary’ service thrown in to protect its traditional service.
It seems to have borrowed this strategy from telecom competitor Reliance Jio.
From the start, Reliance Jio has positioned itself as a distribution platform that goes beyond traditional wires and radio waves, and into the digital realm.
While traditional telecom, cable and DTH companies see their distribution platform and their physical network as one and the same, Jio sees its platform as existing not just on its own network, but out there on the Internet, like in case of Youtube or Facebook.
In other words, while others focus on hardware-based networks/platforms, Jio is creating both a hardware-based network as well as an independent software-based network/platform.
This strategy is well established in the smartphone world — where software-based networks like Netflix and Facebook are valued higher than hardware-based networks like AT&T and Vodafone. But when it comes to the TV world, it is the hardware-based networks that still dominate.
Given this dual-play strategy, Jio was the first network provider to allow its TV app — JioCinema — to be used on any physical hardware and any physical network.
In other words, while you can run JioCinema on a third-party TV box using a third-party broadband connection — unlike the apps of other TV content platforms like Tata Sky.
Now, by making its app available on Android TV, Airtel too is offering its content distribution platform — XStream — on third party devices and networks.
However, there are indications that Airtel may go beyond Jio in its endeavor to build up a software-based distribution platform.
This is because Jio still requires the customer of its TV app to be also a customer of one of Jio’s various physical networking services — either its 4G network or fiber broadband service. If you are not on either of these, you can’t receive the one-time password required to activate the app.
However, Airtel seems to be going beyond Jio in building up its TV app as a standalone business. It has announced that Airtel XStream will be available to those who are not consumers of Airtel’s network at a cost of Rs 999 per year.
In other words, even if you are not on any of Airtel’s physical networks — such as its mobile network or its DTH network — you can still have access to Airtel XStream by paying the app’s subscription charges.
This means that Airtel sees it as a competitor to the likes of Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video.